An organization sought to challenge a county’s project approval and certification of an Environmental Impact Report for a 155,000-square-foot building, but filed the case three days late. The trial court dismissed the case. On appeal, the court upheld the trial court decision, finding that the specific, strict statute of limitations in the California Environmental Quality Act did not allow for application of the more general time extension contained in the Code of Civil Procedure. (Alliance for the Protection of the Auburn Community Environment v. County of Placer (--- Cal.Rptr.3d ----, Cal.App. 3 Dist., February 28, 2013).
In 2008, Bohemia Properties, LLC (“Bohemia”) applied to Placer County to develop a 155,000-square-foot building on its property. The county prepared an Environmental Impact Report (“EIR”), circulated it for public comment, and certified it in 2010. Alliance for the Protection of the Auburn Community Environment (“Alliance”) appealed the certification, and the County held a public hearing on the appeal. The county certified the EIR again and filed a notice of determination (NOD) approving the project. The next step for Alliance in challenging the project would have been to file a writ petition in trial court challenging approval of the project within 30 days. Alliance filed the petition, but did so three days late, apparently due to a miscommunication with the service that Alliance’s attorney hired to file the petition at the court. Bohemia filed a demurrer arguing that because Alliance’s writ petition had been filed late, the case should be dismissed. Alliance filed a motion for relief arguing that its delay was excusable and also filed an opposition to Bohemia’s demurrer. The trial court denied Alliance’s motion for relief and granted Bohemia’s demurrer. Alliance then sought relief in the court of appeal, arguing that the trial court should have excused the late filing of its writ petition under Code of Civil Procedure section 473.
Code of Civil Procedure section 473 allows for a court to grant relief to a party for dismissals occurring due to “mistake, inadvertence, surprise, or excusable neglect” within six months after the dismissal. The court of appeal observed that public policy supports resolving court disputes on their merits (core, substantive arguments) rather than technical or procedural issues and that section 473 is meant to be applied broadly to support that goal. However, the California Supreme Court limited the application of section 473 to exclude dismissals of cases when a party misses a specific statute of limitations period for court filing. The court reasoned that when the Legislature places an express limitations period in a law, that specific law should be applied rather than the more general extension contained in section 473. In some laws, the Legislature includes an extension period for good cause, indicating that some delay is excusable. The Supreme Court found that where the Legislature does not include an extension period, it would be overstepping for a court to allow extensions because the court would in effect be rewriting the law.
In Alliance’s case, the applicable law was Public Resources Code section 21167, which supplies the limitations period for challenging project approvals and EIRs under the California Environmental Quality Act (“CEQA”). This law does not contain an extension for the statute of limitations, and so the court of appeal declined to read one into it. Alliance argued that other cases have allowed time extensions for filing CEQA appeals. However, the court distinguished these cases, noting that one arose from confusion over the particular date that the limitations period began to run, and that the other involved a minor amendment to a court pleading to add the name of a plaintiff mistakenly left off the paperwork. Looking at Alliance’s argument from a public policy perspective, the court explained that although the Legislature meant for CEQA to be read broadly to protect the environment, at the same time CEQA is written to ensure that court challenges to projects are resolved promptly. To allow cases to be brought beyond the time allowed under the statute of limitations would be to rewrite the law and undermine the Legislature’s intent, as well as the public interest in efficient resolution of land development disputes.
The court of appeal affirmed the trial court’s granting of the demurrer and the dismissal of Alliance’s case.
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